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On Knowing--The Social Sciences

Edited by: David B. Owen and Joanne K. Olson
As a philosopher, Richard McKeon spent his career developing Pragmatism in a new key, specifically by tracing the ways in which philosophic problems arise in fields other than philosophy—across the natural and social sciences and aesthetics—and showed the ways in which any problem, pushed back to its beginning or taken to its end, is a philosophic problem. The roots of this book, On Knowing—The Social Sciences, are traced to McKeon’s classes where he blended philosophy with physics, ethics, politics, history, and aesthetics.

This volume—the second in a series—leaves behind natural science themes to embrace freedom, power, and history, which, McKeon argues, lay out the whole field of human action. The authors McKeon considers—Hobbes, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Kant, and J. S. Mill—show brilliantly how philosophic methods work in action, via analyses that do not merely reduce or deconstruct meaning, but enhance those texts by reconnecting them to the active history of philosophy and to problems of ethics, politics, and history. The waves of modernism and post-modernism are receding. Philosophic pluralism is now available, fully formulated, in McKeon’s work, spreading from the humanities to the social sciences.

Author Information

Richard McKeon (1900–85) was the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Chicago. David B. Owen is professor emeritus of education at Iowa State University. Joanne K. Olson is professor in the School of Education at Iowa State University.


“McKeon opens a further means of retaking up historical narratives in a manner that is directed at encouraging historical inquiry and reflection. It is precisely in moments of pausing, of hesitation, of confusion that such clarity contributes to opening a discussion of time past, of accounts of times past, and of orientation to the future. This book makes possible for others an entry into a world of disciplined thinking.”
— Paul Rabinow, University of California, Berkeley

“A complex text from the height of philosophical modernism that is simultaneously pragmatist in feel, these lectures now read as both a historical document of the development of the American academy and as an articulation of a pluralist philosophical position that avoids the trap of relativism. As the latter, they can serve an important role in the reinvention of the philosophy of social science in the twenty-first century. As the former, they will be especially valuable as a historical reference point for the ongoing debate about the humanities—and the humanistic social sciences—in the academy today.”
— Isaac Ariail Reed, University of Virginia

“McKeon was a philosopher of and for a pluralistic world. This valuable and carefully edited work provides a rich window into his remarkably fertile mind and the system of philosophical semantics he developed to organize and investigate competing philosophies and ways of knowing. Among much else, the lectures advance and apply McKeon’s fundamentally rhetorical method of inquiry, underscoring his place as one of the last century’s most important philosophers of rhetoric.”
— Peter Simonson, University of Colorado Boulder

“McKeon had a philosophy. Once more, it was a pluralistic and tolerant one, made so by his embrace of ambiguity
as a concept vital for philosophic dialogue. In both form and content, these aspects of McKeon’s thought are on full display. . . On Knowing: The Social Sciences is centered around the analysis of three key concepts: freedom, power, and history. As in many of his published works, McKeon traces the permutations of meaning each idea
has through the works of other philosophers.. . . On Knowing draws subtle and often overlooked connections between the thinkers it analyzes.”
— The Review of Metaphysics

Audience: Professional and scholarly;